When employees share novel ideas and bring up concerns or problems, organizations innovate & perform better. Employees are often the first to see issues on the frontlines, so their input can really help managerial decision making.

Yet, managers do not always promote employee ideas. In fact, they can even actively disregard employee concerns and act in ways that iscourage employees from speaking up.

This presents a paradox: Why don’t managers encourage voice and ideas from below when it is beneficial to them and their organizations?

Much current research on the topic suggests that managers are frequently stuck in their own ways of working and identify so strongly with the status quo that they are fearful of listening to contrary input from below. In a recent paper, published at Organization Science, offers an alternative perspective: demonstrating that managers often fail to create speak-up cultures not because they are self-focused or acre only about their own egos & ideas, but because their organizations put them in impossible positions.

It was found that managers face two distinct hurdles: They are not empowered to act on input from below, and they feel compelled to adopt a short-term outlook to work.

Take the hypothetical example of Jane, a production manager, who is committed to the organization and wants to do well by it. Jane knows that some her employees, who are closer to the production lines than her, likely have good ideas that can improve workflow on the shop floor. But, in Jane’s organization, managers are not empowered to make any changes without going through a tedious central approving process at HQ. She also feels disincentivized to take time to seek improvements, since she is only rewarded on short-term successes like meeting the next deadline or target.

Now, Jane can certainly encourage her employees to speak up with ideas. But she knows that if she does, they would expect her to quickly act on those ideas, which is something she cannot do. She also recognizes that implementing new practices or changes, though helpful in the longer term, would lead to disruptions in the production flow in the short-term. With end-of-quarter production targets looming, Jane would be hard-pressed to find time to initiate conversations about change.

The data found many managers who faced a similar situation to Jane’s. They often work in environments that do not provide them with autonomy to change things. They experience centralized decision structures, in which authority lies at the top of the hierarchy, and they are merely “go-betweens.” And even when they are empowered to act, they still confront demands to show success in the short-term rather than look out for longer-term sustainability. Under such circumstances, even the best-intentioned managers likely avoid soliciting employee ideas and might even stifle them.

The takeaways

We tend to blame managers when they fail to create speak-up cultures. We say that their ego or fear of change prevents them from encouraging voice from employees. But the findings indicate that it is unreasonable to ask managers to solicit and encourage ideas and input from employees when they are not empowered themselves and are asked to focus on short-term outcomes.

It is important for organizations to examine the extent to which their practices (e.g., micromanagement by the top management) are impinging on managers’ sense of autonomy on the job. It is also crucial to understand how rampant short-termism can reduce the extent to which ideas from below trickle-up to the top and get implemented. Nurturing long-term views and opening up opportunities for managers to step-away from the immediate demands of the work can help ensure that managers promote creativity and innovation within their teams. Allocating more resources and influence to managers who display long-term orientation can reap increased benefits.

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